I was fairly young when I started teaching. 21, fresh-faced, and just out of college, I totally flopped my first semester as an educator. I wasn’t ready. I prioritized being their friend over being their teacher, which led to some disastrous and ineffective time spent in my classroom. I tried to “be cool” with them, I tried to bribe them. Finally, I tried to “get on their level.”
One student didn’t feel like taking notes and started protesting before they snapped at me, saying something I took to be rude. Instead of trying to diffuse the situation, I made some not-very-clever, wannabe-snappy comeback. The student turned red, eyes watering, and stormed out.
Later, when I went to debrief the day with my vice principal, I told him how mad the student had made me and how I didn’t want to be disrespected.
He listened thoughtfully and empathetically. Then, he said, “I get where you’re coming from. You shouldn’t have to be disrespected. What you do need to remember, though, is that you are the adult in the room. At the end of the day, you model and create the boundaries of what respect looks like for you and your students. If you model respect, you’ll get respect back, but you’re in a much better place to find that respect, even when it’s hard, than a group of teenagers.”
I blinked at him, realizing that I had never clearly understood that concept before.
Then, I hung my head in shame.
Yes, being disrespected by a student felt frustrating and hurtful, but I was also older, (seemingly) wiser, and had a lot less to deal with than my students.
What I realized was that I had spent years learning how to be a peer to other kids, not learning to lead and guide them with love. That would take time, work, and the understanding that love doesn’t always mean letting kids do what they want in the moment, because they’re still developing. Ultimately, I’m the adult in the room, and that means it’s my charge to ensure my students make thoughtful choices and see me model my best self in any given situation.
This is the story that keeps coming to mind as I read and watched the events that took place between Nathan Phillips and the students of Covington Catholic High School. Phillips, a Native American veteran, found himself surrounded by the students, who were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.
There are already well-written summaries from Education Week and The New York Times about the event. There are also already a number of Native perspectives on the event, put together by American Indians in Children’s Literature. I highly recommend reading them, if you haven’t.
Here’s what I will add as a teacher. It is our job to model what respect, understanding, empathy, and critical thinking look like for our students.
Should the students themselves be let off the hook because “they’re just kids”? Of course not, and there’s something to be said about the fact that a white student from a private school is able to use a PR firm to explain when he is “misunderstood"—a benefit our students of color and in low-income communities rarely get.
Those students should have their actions questioned. They should reflect on why they responded the way they did, why it was inappropriate and hurtful, and what they could have done instead.
Still, I am less-than-surprised that a group of teenage boys wanted to respond to what they felt were verbal attacks by yelling back. Between toxic masculinity and the nature of teenagers (I, too, was swept up into less-than-graceful yelling as a young athlete and spectator) it’s not acceptable, but also not astonishing that they wanted to respond that way.
What I do question is where were the adults in that space? Where were the people who were charged with the safety and well-being of those students? Wasn’t someone supposed to be there to guide them with support and love?
There are a few ways the adults present could have handled that situation in a way that could have been powerful lessons for these students, instead of allowing it to devolve into the incendiary space that it became.
The adults there could have steered the students elsewhere, discussing with them why the protestors were responding the way they did and what that meant. They could have attempted to empathize and understand, even if they disagreed, and diffused the situation by walking away.
They could have helped students calmly approach the protestors and attempt a conversation, showing what it looks like to engage in powerful, critical conversations with people who don’t appear to agree with them.
They could have, perhaps, begun to dissect the layers of power and privilege they had as young, mostly-white men from a school supported by one of the largest and most powerful religions in the world. As Luke 12:48 reminds us, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” It is our charge, as Catholics (myself included), to seek kinship with even those with whom we disagree, to consider what it means to have as much as they do and, as Father Gregory Boyle reminds us, stand in the margins with those people and not judge how they carry that burden, but rather stand in awe of their ability to carry it.
These students were old enough to know better and old enough to understand why their actions are wrong, but the adults in that space were responsible for that and to have the foresight and experience to diffuse a potentially problematic situation into something that shows what respect and understanding look like.
It can feel hard, sometimes, to be our best selves for our students. In what feels like such a divisive climate, it can be tempting to let the worst part of ourselves out and let our students act as conduits for the anger and frustration we might feel.
We have to be the adults in the room, however. We must ask our students to interrogate our anger, to see if it comes from a place of just frustration with inequality, or is perhaps a defensive mechanism for when our current sense of power and security is questionedmdash;as I reacted when my student snapped at me my first year.
And, yes, we have a right to express our justified anger and rage, yet we are also called on to act with a radical love that models the expression of that anger in ways that both validate it and provide our students with the skills to move forward from or with it.
Ultimately, teaching is a glorious gift wrapped in what can be exceptionally difficult work: We are asked to present and model the best parts of ourselves for our students, knowing that they learn from us. Teaching allows us to push ourselves, consistently and in perpetuity, to be worthy of our students. It also asks us to do the internal work in order to get there.
So, while I’m frustrated with what happened that day in the District of Columbia, I know that I have two options. I can debase that teenager to my students, showing my own anger with what he and his actions represent, giving them one facet of my frustration.
Or, I can use my feelings as the jumping-off point for my students to interrogate the larger, bigger issues at hand. I can be the adult in the room, look at them with lovemdash;even with angry— and ask them, “What’s next?”
Photo: Protestors gather outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. The diocese in Kentucky has apologized after videos emerged showing students from a Catholic boys’ high school mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a rally in Washington. —John Minchillo/AP
Correction: This post was updated with the correct of the name of the high school the students visiting Washington attended. It is Covington Catholic High School.
The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.